The Avid Reader: Murder, romance, and, of course, knitting

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/2/2021 12:04:17 PM

Summer is upon us and easy reading books, my lawn chair, and a tall glass of iced tea calls. I am winding down from a killer winter/spring schedule and I need down-time reading, and doing a little knitting. My idea of a reading escape, if you have been reading this column, is very predictable. I want a clean read: an interesting murder mystery with no graphic violence, or strong language, an interesting set of characters, fast moving plot, possibly a little romance, and of course – knitting. That’s really not too much to ask given the winter we all have had.

One of my favorite authors that meets these expectations is Brooks Mencher, author of the Yarn Woman Series. The main character of this series is Miss Ruth M., a PhD level forensic fabric consultant frequently hired by the local San Francisco Police as well as FBI, CIA, and numerous other 3-letter federal agencies to solve crimes involving often rare, old, and very valuable textiles. Miss M plays the harpsicord, lives in a renovated Art Deco movie theater in downtown San Francisco, travels around in a 1957 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, and collects yarn to knit. My kind of heroine – a crime solving knitter. She also has a cat.

One of my favorite books in this series is “The Sea Silk Shawl.” Sea silk, by the way, is a very rare and extremely valuable fiber that is made from the long filaments, called byssus, secreted by pen shells, and historically is thought to have a mystical connection to troubled souls caught in that liminal space between life and death. The ancient Chinese called it “cloth from West of the Sea,” because the large mussel that produces this rare fiber is only found in the Mediterranean Sea.

Yet, in this story the mussel also appears to be located in a secret spot somewhere on the California coast. This is where Miss M and her uncanny fiber forensic skills comes in. With all the consulting work and crime solving investigation Miss M does, we find her in need of a vacation. She has rented the Point Delores Lighthouse in Northern California, for the summer and intends to knit, and catch up on sleep. But this town is haunted by murders committed twenty years ago in that very lighthouse. The lighthouse keeper and a local deputy sheriff appeared to have had a shoot-out where both died – supposedly over a drug smuggling operation gone wrong. The most puzzling piece to this cold case, however, is that the body of the light house keeper’s daughter Anastasia, thought to also have been killed that night, has never been found.

Miss M, staying in the lighthouse, wakes up one morning and finds a young girl, who calls herself Anastasia, by her bedside. The child, who seems to appear and disappear at will, is also a knitter and she and Miss M eventually trade their knitting. Sure enough, the fiber the young girl used is sea silk – the same fiber as the shawl she is always wearing.

Miss M is intrigued, visits a local knitting club, is provided clues, and begins her investigation into the two shootings, the fate of Anastasia, and the mystery of how Mediterranean mussels have been secretly thriving in the Pacific waters off the coast of Northern California.

I have to say, this was an extremely satisfying book. The entire series is along the same lines balancing on that threshold between what we think we know and what might be possible in that variable boundary between death and life. I also like to see the police presence in a positive light. San Francisco Police Detective William Chu is intelligent, honest, and happy to work with Miss M as she solves these very unusual crimes. This is a very refreshing position for an author to take and I really enjoy reading about police portrayed as crime-solving, and non-adversarial. This may be due to Brooks having been a crime reporter for various newspapers and seen firsthand how the police really operate.

Authors from the British Commonwealth countries seem to also view their police this way. Author Reagan Davis certainly has put a positive spin on the police presence in her Knitorious Murder Mystery Series. “Knit One Murder Two” features a knitting store employee, soon to be owner (slight spoiler alert), who seems to have developed a propensity for finding murder victims in her small Canadian town, Harmony Lake.

As with the typical knitting cozy-type mystery, there is a bit of romance, some humor, a slightly klutzy heroine, a police detective who is a bit of a hunk, the usual eccentric characters, very much-loved pets, and some murders.

Megan Martel, our lovable protagonist, is going through a divorce, knits to soothe herself (who doesn’t?), and gets herself into enough trouble to be considered a suspect in the murder of the person she discovered dead. The person in question is the most hated man in town, not missed by anyone, but still his death is a crime and it must be solved. Poor Megan, who had a run-in with the victim just before his demise, begins to investigate for no other reason than to clear herself.

Of course, the killer is brought to justice, but only after Megan discovers the murderer’s identity, is put in peril, and finally rescued by the stalwart police detective. This is the first in the series, and each book can be read as a stand-alone, and in any order. However, the lives of the characters do progress throughout the series – so if you want the full experience read them in order. Book candy at its best.

“Knitted and Knifed” by Tracey Drew is my last pick for a nice cozy mystery series, again with knitting, for summer reading. This time the setting is New Zealand, and once again the very likable police provide a positive presence.

Tessa Wakefield, our heroine, is a high school guidance counselor who moves back to her sea-side home town, Cape Discovery, to help take care of her recently widowed grandfather – a retired police officer. The timing was right. She had just broken up with her cheating ex, was tired of the big city and her job, and ready to help out in the family yarn store until she figured out what to do with her life. (Another spoiler alert – she gets the store).

She has only been in town a few months when her late grandmother’s two cats discover the body of the community’s most hated man. I hope you are seeing the formula here, but don’t let that deter you – it’s part of the charm of a cozy mystery.

This time it’s Tessa’s brother who is the suspect, and she is asking around trying to remove him as an accused murderer and find the real killer. The romance interest for Tessa is between a local pub owner and the handsome hunk Detective Sargent Eric Mora. Following the same formula, Tessa discovers the killer, using her guidance counselor skills of course, finds herself in peril, and is ultimately rescued by Detective Sargent Mora.

These fast-paced mysteries have become extremely popular in part because the people are quirky, most people can relate to the main character and her family, and the stories do not contain extreme violence, or foul language. Of course it’s not reality – that’s why we read them! These books take us away from the real world for just enough time to catch our breath, think positive thoughts, and perhaps find ways we might go about making at least a bit of the formula into reality. Most also provide knitting patterns and sometimes sources for yarn. Heaven.


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